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Italian cuisine in India is moving beyond pizza and pasta

In India, Italian cuisine isn’t just giving French food the boot, these days, it’s also moving beyond pizza and pasta, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Aug 01, 2015 17:45 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Does anybody remember The Little Hut? It was a nightclub/Italian restaurant at Bombay’s Ritz Hotel. I was too young to go there in the Sixties but I knew that my parents went. I don’t recall them mentioning the quality of the Italian food, which is not odd because I don’t remember them ever discussing any Italian food available in Bombay in the Sixties.

I thought back to those days and tried to work out when Italian restaurants first arrived in India. Oh yes, there were places that served macaroni with keema and called it Bolognaise (usually multi-cuisine restaurants of the Gaylord-Kwality variety). But try as I might, I couldn’t think of any authentic restaurants at all.

The old Oberoi Intercontinental, which opened in 1965 (and is now Delhi’s The Oberoi) had nothing. The Oberoi Sheraton which opened in Bombay in 1973 (it is now the Trident, Nariman Point) had fancy French (Café Royal) but no Italian. The new wing of the Bombay Taj (opened in 1972) had the rooftop Rendezvous (French) but no Italian.

Forget French: Slowly, but surely, casual Italian food has taken over. Even the queen of the standalone sector, Delhi’s Ritu Dalmia, is an Italian chef. Her Diva chain serves the Pizza Salsiccia.

The first authentic Italian restaurant I can recall was Casa Medici on the roof of the Delhi Taj, which opened in 1978. Because chefs and recipes were sourced from Italy, it took a long time for the people of Delhi to get used to the flavours and eventually it closed.

The modern Italian restaurant of the sort we recognise today only came to India when the President Hotel in Bombay redid its coffee shop and turned it into a casual-dining Italian place, and called it Trattoria. Though it had red-check tablecloths in true Italian trattoria style, it also had a few Indian touches, including chairs that were patterned on the chairs at Bombay’s Irani restaurants.

But Trattoria made two great innovations. First of all, it ended the myth that all ‘Continental’ restaurants in India had to be formal fine-dining places. This was like a coffee shop. You could stroll in when you liked, eat as much or as little as you wanted, and the bill was never high.

The second innovation was the decision to merge the traditions of the trattoria with a pizzeria. Though Trattoria served comfort Italian food, it was the pizzas that really enraptured Bombay. And, either by accident or design, the President hit on two factors that have shaped Italian food in India ever since: it has to appeal to vegetarians and it has to be carb-heavy because Indians have no time for the meat-and-veg style of French food. We love lots of carbs, and the more maida the better. So Trattoria’s menu was packed out with pasta and pizzas.

Though these seemed like dramatic innovations at the time, they are now pretty standard in today’s restaurant industry. Talk to any food professional or hotelier and he will tell you that French food will never work in India. And he will assure you that unless a restaurant can also appeal to vegetarians, it has no hope of success.

It is instructive that hardly anyone opens French restaurants any longer. Even though the standalone restaurant sector is exploding, I can count the French restaurants in Delhi and Bombay on my fingers. Nor do the big hotel chains, which used to pride themselves on their French restaurants, open French places any longer.

The Oberoi’s Rotisserie, Brasserie, and La Rochelle are dead. The Taj has closed the Rendezvous and the Zodiac Grill is in intensive care. The Ashok gave up on Burgundy. Le Cirque is now more Italian than French. I can’t think of a single French restaurant at any hotel in the Bombay suburbs or in Gurgaon, for that matter.

Slowly, but surely, casual Italian food has taken over. Even in the standalone sector, there is nothing particularly French about Olive, and the queen of this sector, Delhi’s Ritu Dalmia of the Diva chain, is an Italian chef.

And that’s not counting the chains. Jamie Oliver brings his Jamie’s Italian and Jamie’s Pizzeria to India this year. Domino’s is India’s leading fast-food chain. Plus there are Pizza Express and Pizza Hut. There’s quality pizza from Pizza Metro Pizza in Bombay. And more.

So what accounts for the shift away from the formal old ‘Continental’ restaurants and how do we explain the Italian explosion?

Mostly, it is the factors that made Trattoria a success in the Eighties (and it is still booming) at work again. Take the example of Delhi’s Hyatt Regency, which started out with Valentino’s, a relatively formal Italian restaurant, and then junked the concept in the Nineties to open La Piazza, a pasta-pizza place with a casual but still recognisably five-star ambience. The restaurant had people queuing up for tables for the first two years (La Piazza did not take bookings) and it still flourishes.

La Piazza, like Trattoria, was the first Italian restaurant in Delhi to cater to vegetarians with special dishes. Others have since followed its lead. My guess is that between 40 to 50 per cent of the guests at Italian hotel places are vegetarians who order pizzas or pasta. (Stuff like melanzane may be on the menu but it does not really move.)

But there are other factors at work too. Till the late Nineties, going to a European restaurant was seen as an elite activity, confined to well-travelled sophisticates and foreigners here for business or tourism. But the economic and demographic changes of the last two decades have meant that a new, younger middle class that is more focused on going out has emerged. These are people who understand international cuisine, find recipes on YouTube and watch food shows on TV. They don’t see going out as a big occasion, so they don’t like dressing up and going to formal restaurants. They see it as fun, as an adventure.

But I’m now beginning to wonder if we have entered a new phase when diners are finally confident enough to move beyond the familiar and to try Italian food that is slightly more adventurous than pizza and pasta.

Delhi’s Artusi makes few compromises on food and serves the Gran Crostacei (above).

In Delhi, Artusi makes few compromises with the food (there were no pizzas on the menu, the night I went) and yet has found fame and success. Le Cirque at the Leela has moved away from the New York original’s French roots and the menu leans towards authentic and complex Italian food of a superb quality. Even La Piazza, under its last chef, served fine-dining Italian.

Bombay bites: Matteo Thun, the new chef at Mezzo Mezzo at the JW Marriott says that even in Juhu, not exactly gourmet heaven, there are people willing to give serious Italian food a chance.

The change was driven home to me when I went to Mezzo Mezzo at Bombay’s JW Marriott. The new chef there is Matteo Thun, who I last knew when he cooked at the Four Seasons in the same city. In 2008, when I ate at Prato where Matteo was the chef, I was very impressed with the authenticity and flair he brought to his cooking. But, in those days, even the Four Seasons could not sustain a real Italian restaurant. Prato closed and its place was taken by Café Prato, a sort-of coffee shop.

Now Matteo is back in India and his cooking is even better than I remembered it. The big difference is that, this time around, he is having no difficulty in getting guests to try his food. Even in Juhu, not exactly gourmet heaven, there are enough people who are willing to give serious Italian food a chance.

This feeling was confirmed when I went back, after many years, to Celini, the Italian restaurant at The Grand Hyatt at Kalina. I used to stay a lot at this hotel in 2005/6 and perforce, ate many of my meals at Celini. It was a perfectly acceptable pizza-pasta place but not much more. But now, even the pastas seem more genuinely Italian, the bread on the table is sourdough ciabatta, and care is lavished on the ingredients. I had a simple dish of sausages with mash and was so stunned by the quality of the sausages that I asked where they were from. It turned out that the chef made his own in the restaurant kitchen. That would not have happened in the days when I stayed there.
More than Naples, more than staples: At Celini (above) now, the pastas seem more genuinely Italian, the bread is sourdough ciabatta, and care is lavished on the ingredients.

I also tried the new Romano’s at the other JW Marriott in Bombay (it’s the one near Sahar). Once again, the idea was to do something different and to focus mainly on the cuisine of Rome. So the pastas included that Roman favourite, Amatriciana, and there were many unusual dishes on the menu. I enjoyed the polpette (meatballs, I guess) though I always associate them, in my mind, with Venice rather than Rome.

I’ve had similar experience at Botticino at the Trident, in Bandra Kurla Complex. Though this restaurant is run by the Oberoi’s own chefs (unlike the elegant Vetro at The Oberoi where the chef is from Rome’s Hassler Hotel), the food is entirely authentic and goes beyond the usual pastas.

Botticino (above) at the Trident in Bombay goes beyond pastas; Le Cirque is now more Italian than French.

So clearly, something new and exciting is happening. Italian is still the favourite European cuisine of most Indians. But we are finally graduating to the food that Italians really eat in their own country!

From HT Brunch, August 2
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First Published: Jul 31, 2015 17:28 IST